BORODIANKA, Ukraine — The first sign of trouble was when a squad of Chechen soldiers burst through the door.
They jumped out of their jeeps, combat boots pounding on the pavement, and ordered the 500 patients and staff of the Borodianka special care home out into the yard, at gunpoint.
“We thought we were going to be executed,” Maryna Hanitska, director of the home, said in an interview this week.
The soldiers took out a camera, Hanitska said, then barked at her to make everyone smile. Most of the patients cried.
“We order you to say to the camera: ‘Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,’” the soldiers demanded of Ms. Hanitska.
With several guns to his face, he said, he quickly weighed his options. He would never thank the president of Russia, whom he had called a “liar” and a “murderer.”
But she didn’t want the soldiers to hurt anyone. She then managed to utter, “Thank you for not killing us.”
And then he passed out.
Thus began a nightmarish ordeal at a Ukrainian mental health facility in Borodianka, a small town with a few apartment blocks that sits at a strategic intersection some 50 miles northwest of the capital, kyiv.
In more than a dozen interviews over the past two days in Borodianka and other towns in the devastated areas around kyiv, villagers described Russian soldiers as brutal, sadistic, undisciplined and juvenile. Their accounts could not be independently verified, but were consistent with other reports and visual evidence about Russian behavior in the region.
The siege on the mental health center went on for weeks, during which the building lost heat, water and electricity, and more than a dozen patients lost their lives. What unfolded there represents the depths of despair and, at the same time, amazing courage under a brief but harrowing Russian occupation.
In the areas of Ukraine recently liberated from a month-long Russian occupation, a long series of disturbing stories is emerging about the terror and death that Russian soldiers inflicted on the unarmed Ukrainian civilians under their control.
Every day, Ukrainian investigators walk into a damp cellar, muddy field, or someone’s backyard and discover the bodies of villagers who have been shot in the head or show signs of torture. More accounts are emerging of civilians being held as human shields and some dying from lack of food, water or heat. On Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had killed at least 900 civilians as they withdrew from the kyiv region.
Much of this misery was spread across small towns near kyiv, where the Russians held a large swath in the early days of the war but were pushed out two weeks ago by less-equipped but much more determined Ukrainian forces.
Administrators of the Borodianka mental health house said Russian soldiers robbed their pharmacy of drinking alcohol. Villagers elsewhere said they stole sheets and sneakers, and defaced many of the houses they occupied with children’s graffiti. Workers at the mental health home also said that on their way out, Russian soldiers scrawled profane messages on the walls, in human excrement.
“I threw up when I saw that,” Hanitska said. “I don’t understand how they were raised, by whom and who could do this.”
Lypivka, a small town dwarfed by vast wheat fields, was occupied by Russian soldiers until March 31. Here, the villagers said that the Russians betrayed them.
Some women in the village had asked Russian commanders for permission to evacuate, and the Russians seemed to agree. So on March 12, a group of older men, women, and children piled into 14 cars and slowly began driving toward what they thought would be a safe place.
“We all had white flags and we had permission,” said Valriy Tymchuk, a shopkeeper who was driving a minibus in the convoy.
But then the Russian armored personnel carriers turned their turrets on them, the villagers said. A shell destroyed the first car. And then another. And then another.
The convoy became a ball of fire.
Mr Tymchuk said he saw a family of four, including a young child, trapped in their car and engulfed in flames. Many of the charred cars are still on the road. That child’s charred bones are still in the back seat, Tymchuk said. What appeared to be pieces of bone were scattered among the blackened metal and mounds of ash.
Next to the cars lay two dead dogs, their fur singed.
Mr. Tymchuk barely escaped after his minibus was hit and shrapnel cut his face.
He shook his head when asked why he thought the Russians did this.
“They are zombies,” he said.
These towns were on the front lines, as part of Russia’s failed attempt to encircle and capture kyiv. The same thing happened with Bucha, another town north of kyiv and the site of the worst atrocities discovered so far. All of these places are quiet now, allowing forensic investigators to do their job. And the more they search, the more they find.
In Makariv, another small town near Kyiv, authorities said they recently discovered more than 20 bodies, in different yards and houses, many with marks of torture. In the Brovary area further east, police found six bodies in a basement, all men who had apparently been executed.
“We have seen bodies with stab wounds and beating marks, and some with their hands bound with duct tape,” said Oleksandr Omelyanenko, a police officer in the kyiv region.
“The places most affected,” he added, “were occupied for the longest time.”
That was the story of Borodianka and the Borodianka Psychoneurological Nursing Home.
Ms. Hanitska, 43, a former school principal, said she watched from the windows of the three-story building as the Russian trucks entered. She counted 500.
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Then, worried about snipers, the Russians began shelling apartment blocks lining the highways, killing dozens of residents under a cascade of debris, according to emergency service officials.
Shock waves shook the special needs home, built in the 1970s to care for adults with neurological and psychological disorders. Ms. Hanitska said that some of her patients became aggressive, and three even ran away and have yet to be found. Others were terrified and huddled under their beds and in their closets.
“It was more than 10 times terrifying,” said Ihor Nikolaenko, a patient.
On March 5 it got worse.
It was then that the Chechens appeared. Chechen troops are especially feared, believed to be more ruthless than other Russians, stemming from years of their own failed separatist war against Russia’s central government.
Ms. Hanitska and other staff members said they could tell the troops were Chechen from their light-colored beards and the language they spoke among themselves. Ukrainian authorities posted messages on social media referring to Chechens and warning them not to harm patients.
“These are mostly sick people with developmental disabilities,” Oleksandr Pavliuk, a senior Ukrainian military officer, said in a statement. “But these are our people and we cannot and will never leave them.”
At this point, for some people inside, it was already too late. Ms. Hanitska said her first patient died from exposure to cold in late February. In early March, half a dozen more died. In total, she lost 13.
It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit inside the building, even colder outside. There was no heat, no electricity, no running water, and little food. Borodianka was under siege, after all.
“We started drinking water from the pond,” said Ms. Hanitska. “We all get sick.”
The Chechen contingent mysteriously withdrew the same day it arrived, but other Russians took their place. They did not allow anyone to leave the building, not even to go looking for food, and they surrounded the building with artillery, mortars and heavy weapons, knowing that the Ukrainians would resist attacking it.
“We became human shields,” said Taisia Tyschkevych, the house’s accountant.
The Russians took everyone’s phone. Or almost everyone.
Ms Hanitska said she hid hers and used it to communicate secretly. She would look out the window of the nurse’s office and see Russian vehicles, she said, and then text the details to Ukrainian forces. “They were attacking the Russians,” she said. “If we hadn’t done this, the fighting would be happening in kyiv.”
Many Ukrainian civilians have helped in this way, Ukrainian officials said.
While spying on the Russians, Ms. Hanitska also cooked on a fire outside, pushed patients into the basement when the artillery became deafening, made room for sleeping in hallways for dozens more fleeing bombed-out buildings in the town and flocked. to her ease of shelter, and more than anything, she helped calm everyone’s nerves.
On March 13, Ms. Hanitska looked out the same window and, for the first time in weeks, saw something that lifted her heart: a convoy of yellow buses. She burst through the door.
“Or they were going to shoot me,” he said. “Or save people.”
Aid workers had organized a rescue and the Russians finally allowed the patients to leave. They were bussed to other facilities in less contested areas.
Ms. Hanitska is tough but humble with a dry sense of humor.
When asked how long he had been working on the house, he laughed.
“Two months,” she said. “I guess you could say I’m lucky.”